On the road from futuristic instrumental concept to real-world product, the Yamaha Tenori-On as shipped lacked some of the functionality its creator, gifted media artist Toshio Iwai, originally imagined. Notably, wireless networking, which promised social music-making with other devices, was gone, replaced with a more-limited MIDI connector.
Now, in a surprisingly literal translation from the hardware to iPad, it appears the Tenori-On has added that feature – but lost some of its charm.
An iOS developer notes to me that pitches don’t sound when you tap the screen, only when they are played in the sequence. That fundamentally changes the interaction with the sequencer: you can’t hear notes until they’re sequenced, and you would presumably lose the sense of playing an instrument. That report is happily incorrect; both the developer and I were mistaken from our video impressions. That makes this far more useful.
My reaction here should be taken with a grain of salt – this is only a demo video. But in observing what is new (networked features look terrific), it’s likewise worth saying that something is lost when you move to tangible hardware. To me, a lot of the appeal of the Tenori-On was tangible: the machined metal case, with curved edges designed to be comfortable to hold, and the feeling of running your fingers against discrete, round keys on the array of buttons. Those are lost by necessity. Yet, oddly, some of the Tenori-On’s features designed primarily for hardware – the menu system and navigation keys – are reproduced here, features necessary on a hardware design but not a tablet.
Yamaha Japan, apologies for going on a rant on a product I haven’t yet used, but I’m concerned at what seems to be a missed opportunity. And designer Toshio Iwai has already conceived imaginative touch-based interfaces that are designed for a screen, in works before iOS had even been announced, like ElectroPlankton for the Nintendo DS and interactive installation work going back some 15 years or so.
Simply translating hardware designs to a screen is novel, but rarely usable. Just ask Tascam, who were roundly (and rightly) criticized for making a Portastudio app for iPad that required you rewind every single time.
At least the good news is, some of the musical personality of Toshio Iwai’s work remains, and in a form that doesn’t require a costly hardware investment. Updated – also, via readers, there’s evidence of MIDI support.You’ll find other videos on Yamaha’s official Japanese channel.
Just mark my words: the hardware is still cooler, and there’s a lot of potential in hardware and software sequencers alike beyond this yet to be realized, whether by Yamaha or by someone else.
Updated: I want to re-emphasize that there appears to be auditory feedback as you press buttons for sequences, which is great news and vastly improves usability. And while I stand by some of what’s advantageous in hardware, I’m excited to learn that we may get both networked and MIDI functions here, as we’ve seen in apps from makers like KORG.
Reader comments are very positive, so amidst this hopefully constructive criticism, I think it’s encouraging that the software looks promising and people are eager to try it! (And being critical of some features does not mean you can’t eventually like the product – part of why I tend not to shy away from criticism.)